Mark Stevens considers a recent concept from Dr Williams and argues that its implicit rejection of tolerance is troubling
‘So we should have done more on what it means to be . a Catholic church; we should have done more on the use of Scripture. And, mindful of the full text of Lambeth 1.10, we should have done more about offering safe space to homosexual people – including those who have in costly ways lived in entire faithfulness to the traditional biblical ethic – to talk about what it is like to be endlessly discussed and dissected in their absence, patronised or demonised… Remember that in different ways this is an issue for our engagement with any and every minority group – how to secure patience and privacy and the space to be honest without foreclosing the outcomes of discussion.’
So said the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Presidential Address at the recent General Synod. Few would deny that it was well said; but reading it later, in cold print, one phrase leaps from the page: ‘safe space’. If the Church of England or the Anglican Communion is to offer ‘safe space to homosexual people’ what will this mean and what will it entail?
Giving it meaning
If the phrase is not to be merely a piece of cant, we need to be able to say what might constitute unsafe space and to distinguish more clearly between tolerance and equivalence than is usually the case in these discussions.
‘Unsafe space’ would surely be an environment in which homosexual people were allowed no voice, and where their being and their personhood was defined over against a self-approving majority. It would be a world where homosexuality was automatically a disqualification for public life or office, and where discrimination in all fields of conduct was not merely legal but routine. The Church could not be a community of that sort and remain the Church of Jesus Christ.
But it does not follow that ‘safe space’ would simply be the opposite of this: an environment in which homosexual liaisons never affected public status, where such relations were not only
condoned but publicly encouraged, and where there was never a ‘them’, but always an ‘us’.
The Archbishop’s logic (‘this is an issue for our engagement with any and every minority group’) seems to assume, assert even, that we are in an area of moral neutrality. But this cannot be the case, or there would be no argument. There are different kinds of minority groups: nuns, redheads, adulterers, the indigenous peoples of Australasia. And so there must be different kinds of ‘issues’ for our ‘engagement’ with them.
If’offering a safe space to homosexual people’ involves accepting the moral neutrality of homosexual conduct, and if it means equating homosexual orientation and even more homosexual activity with skin colour or genetic origin, then it has surely foreclosed the ‘dialogue’ which it seeks to keep open.
How convenient for Christians if the debate about homosexuality were purely biblical or theological: if it more nearly resembled debates about theories of the atonement, or doctrines of the Lord’s presence in the sacrament. We have done a reasonably good job (give or take a few holy wars) at living together with differences of this kind. But it is not like that. It involves not merely claims about the significance and intent of Scripture, but also assertions about matters of basic anthropology and biology.
If creating a ‘safe space’ means accepting the ‘I am what I am’ assertions of homosexual activists, then it most certainly seeks to foreclose on a debate which has scarcely begun. We are divided, you see, not only about what constitutes ‘safe space’, but about who should decide what it is.
As the American experience is showing, the problem for traditional Christians in dealing with current issues in human sexuality is that the activists in the LGBT community, like the feminists before them, have adopted an ethical a priori stance in the matter. For them tolerance is an insult for which only equivalence can atone.